I liken Donald MacPherson to Thomas Clarkson the original community organizer. Clarkson was the unassuming, tireless workhorse behind the successful 18th century campaign to end the British slave trade.
Donald is the legendary community organizer behind the 4 Pillars Drug Strategy, a campaign as ambitious, daunting and complex as addressing slavery. Donald like Clarkson has the good sense to use a wide assortment of social change buttons and levers to address the immediate challenges of drug addiction while simultaneously confronting the social circumstances that spread addiction.
For years community activists in the downtown east side of Vancouver understood that arresting drug users or stopping the flow of illicit drugs into the area was not working. The harder the drugs were to obtain because of policing the greater their worth in the marketplace and the more crimes were being committed to pay for the habit. And the more people died.
In the 80’s and 90’s HIV rates in the downtown east side were the highest in the western world. Vancouver had the highest drug overdose death rate in Canada (nearly 200 in 1998.) The area was known as the Killing Fields.
Into this void stepped courageous political leaders like former Mayor Phillip Owen a pillar of the Vancouver establishment who proposed a new approach which came to be known as the Four Pillars Drug Strategy: Prevention; Treatment; Enforcement and Harm Reduction. Behind the scenes was Donald MacPherson who had witnessed far too many ruined lives and senseless deaths in 22 years of working in Vancouver's downtown Eastside.
Donald's genius was to graft new approaches like harm reduction onto more traditional approaches like law enforcement. He and his colleagues were able to simplify a complex situation using strategies that were accessible. With smart branding they made Vancouverites and their political leaders feel they could stop the downward spiral caused by a dramatic increase in low cost, high quality heroin and cocaine and the ineffective 'war on drugs.'
The swerve worked. Every Vancouver Mayor and BC Premier since 2001 has endorsed the 4 Pillars Drug Strategy and its most controversial initiative, a safe injection site. Deaths have plummeted and Vancouver remains the only government approved safe injection site in North America.
Now Donald is at it again. This time he is bringing his dashboard of whole system change to the national and global level. He and a remarkable assembly of colleagues and partners have just launched the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition an independent civil society network of organizations and individuals working to improve Canada’s drug policies. Here is their bold vision:
We know the ‘war on drugs’ as the dominant paradigm of the last century has not worked. It’s time for Canadians to chart a new path. Together, we can strengthen communities, transform our drug policies and have a profound impact on reducing the harms from alcohol, tobacco, other drugs and the drug trade.
If you have ever wondered about the links between societal and personal addiction and what to do about them I suggest you join the Coalition's mailing list. You can watch and support this experienced team address the complex social, economic, cultural and health variables related to drug use and spread their solutions around the globe.
Fix: The Story of an Addicted City – Genie winning film by Nettie Wild documenting the unlikely alliance between Mayor Owen, drug addicts and advocates for drug policy reform.
4 Pillars Studies, Reports and Research – a wide array of downloadable resources including links to the written resources below.
Raise Shit: Social Action Saving Lives – Susan Boyd; Donald MacPherson; Bud Osborn
Framework for Action – A Four Pillar Approach to Drug Problems in Vancouver by Donald MacPherson
Globalization of Addiction – A Study in Poverty of the Spirit by Bruce K. Alexander